Tinkering with 8 hours work schedule & labour laws in pandemic times (By Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
18 May 2020 14:55 IST

Hard situations always bring in bad laws .After a ruthless six weeks lockdown, the government told us to learn to live with the virus. We knew life would be different.  Who thought that the government would unleash barbarism in the 21st century? Previous two centuries saw the labour movement being instrumental in protecting labour rights which had become a part of the socio-economic development since the Industrial revolution. Standardized eight hours work is the fruit of decades of struggle for a decent living for workmen.’ May day’ celebrated as workers’ day is remembrance  of massive strike in Chicago on 1st May 1867  which made the Illinois Legislature to pass mandated eight hours work. The law  was not followed by many employers. In U.S.a major protest leading to death of many on May day of 1886 called the Haymarket affair secured the eight hours work schedule. The U.K.  Factories Act  1883 abolished child labour, eight hours work schedule and introduced Overtime wages for workers beyond eight hours. In India we have eight hours work schedule flowing from that law. After the first world war, International Labour Organization(ILO) as an agency of the League of Nations adopted the eight hours work standard for the world. I.L.O. found reducing hours of work as a best measure to reduce unemployment during the great depression after First World War. The Industrial revolution’s barbaric   hours of work had been the major concern which stood settled for almost a century.

Pandemics have been exploited by the ruling class for centuries. The fourteenth century Bubonic plague (black death) which peaked between 1348 to 1350   wiped out 25 millions   i.e. one third of the European  population and was the most devastating in human history.  The plague created labour shortage due to which wages short up. There were restrictions on movement of labourers. At the instance of the landlords in June 1349, the Crown passed an ordinance of labourers mandating the landless and those not in trade to take up jobs  offered with wages applicable  five to six years back. The freezing of wages  was coupled with  prohibition on the landlords from offering higher wages to avoid competition. The shortage of work force was such that the ordinance became ineffective and crown passed a second ordinance in 1351 granting powers to the employers to imprison laborers who leave the job.

Our labour laws  are based on a major premise that employees and employers are unequal and the state must intervene in favour of employees and they cannot be left to the goodwill of the employer. There is no doubt that our laws are  complex and rigid  . Industry always  claimed that they    disincentivized investment. Even otherwise, 90% of the 47 crore work force was outside the labour  regulation. Many existing  laws are enacted with great objective only to be ignored  How industry made mince meat of the laws can be seen from on implementation of    Interstate Migrant workmen Act 1979. That was noticed  from the misery of migrant workers only after the lockdown. No states   implemented  the Act. Our  laws required an overhaul and had to be  reformed and rationalized so that implementation is easy. The issue is pending before the standing committee after the Industrial relations code was introduced in Parliament in November 2019.

 When Pandemic intersects authoritarian tendencies it is a dangerous cocktail.    The atmosphere of economic uncertainty can be  used to bring in draconian measures in the name   of nation building. Prime Minister says the only way to survive is to be self reliant. In pursuance of self reliance, the different states  including our own Goa are  contemplating changing laws through the ordinance route. The U.P  Government has already suspended all except three laws for a period of three years. Even Minimum wages Act is suspended. Even  the industry did not make such a demand!  Madhya Pradesh has  made dismissals easier for smaller employers. Most labour regulations waived for 1000 days.  Gujarat  states no new industry shall be bound by existing labour laws. Goa has  increased working hours to 12. All this by ordinances! Ordinances to suspend  rights that  has stood the test of time is certainly an abuse and contempt of  democracy, but niceties of democracy has never been the forte of these governments. Earlier we would keep hope that the apex court would rescue us from such transgressions by governments. The major labour organizations have not reacted with the alacrity the situation warrants.  Tim es are such that it is no possible to protest. The governments are taking undue advantage of that situation.

It is believed  that 12 hours work schedule and changes in labour laws shall attract companies leaving China. Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand  are seen being ahead of India India due to their regimes  not having though labour regulation. Our  hope of self reliance is sought to be baked on the backs of the working class, whose freedom and dignity is being battered .   Crores of migrant workers with no bargaining power who became victim of the unplanned lockdown may not have an option in their home states. But should a progressive state like Goa also accept a barbaric labour regulation of 12 hours works standards? Workers also require security of tenure in as much the Industry requires flexibility but there has to be a mechanism to balance the two. It is incomprehensive that  at this time in history all   we sacrifice great principles of labour jurisprudence because some south Asian  have  such a policy and industry wants it that way. Labour  regulations are to protect labour with fairness to industry.   But the way in which the labour laws are done away with will lead to unregulated exploitation of workers like never before. This will not bring economic recovery but misery as unemployment will further grow with long working hours, though industry may cut costs at the cost of the working class  The objective is to attract investment, otherwise a laudable objective. The belief that only labour laws act as disincentive is misplaced . A World Bank report, some years  ago stated that Electricity, infrastructure and logistics act a barriers for industry and labour laws come thereafter. But it has become easier to target the workers in the name of economic recovery. With avenue of mass protets becoming bleak to what extent  International Labour Organisation can help, only time will tell


Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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- Prasanna Utagi, Well written article and timely . Labour not going to take it lying down .Getting ready to fight back | 19 th May 2020 17:02


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